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Deep Atlantic: 'If you can’t stand up, what's the difference between two and two thousand metres'

Ireland’s Deep Atlantic sees underwater cameraman Ken O’Sullivan embark on a series of voyages out into the open North Atlantic in search of large whales, sharks and cold water coral reefs.

Ken O'Sullivan Underwater cameraman

I WAS IN a tiny RIB (boat) somewhere west of the Cape Verde islands, themselves west of Senegal in the spring of 2011 with a brilliant young whale scientist, Dr Conor Ryan, searching for a long-lost humpback whale breeding grounds, when we got to talking about blue whales that might be found along the edge of the continental shelf perhaps 100km west of Ireland.

These are the holy grail of all wildlife – the largest animal ever to have lived - 90% of its numbers decimated in just fifty years of 20th century whaling.

Could we find one? What about the other sixteen species of whales that have been seen in Irish waters? How would we get there?

A sailing boat or a ship are just too immobile to keep up with a baleen whale, whales without teeth, who spend their half of their lives eating in the high latitudes, so that they can spend the other half swimming to breeding grounds 3-6,000km somewhere to the south in the sub-tropics or perhaps the tropics. And that’s more or less all we know, or knew.

I spent six years thinking

I spent six years thinking about how we could get safely out to the edge of the continental shelf to search for large whales.

From 2012, I made journeys on an angling boat, a sailing boat, and even several journeys on a large research ship, but none were mobile enough to track whales. So we tried a sailing boat with a small RIB in tow, the perfect solution, except as it takes more than a day to sail to the shelf edge.

We needed five or six good weather days to get there and back, and that didn’t happen from mid-June 2016 to September 2017. But that’s the North Atlantic for you.

So we bought a used RIB and fitted two brand new outboard engines, redesigned the boat layout with two separate fuel tanks, two radios, two satellite beacons from different manufacturers, medical oxygen, specialist first aid kit, paramedic training and a hardy crew who’ve spent years navigating big seas off Clare pulling surfers into monster waves.

Waiting game

Then we waited for calm seas. It was well into summer 2016 when the weather allowed us our first offshore trip, just 10km west of Clare to search for whales. But we only found sharks, a lot them though, doing something that was never before documented and left me somewhat mesmerised. The encounter would become the source first of six academic research papers to come out of our two programmes.

We became braver and travelled further and further offshore as we became comfortable with our equipment and seamanship.

Common dolphins were the absolute norm, gracing us on every single voyage, but the sight of a million strong shoal of horse mackerel took my breath away – literally – as I tried to ‘free dive’ long enough to film them under attack by herds of dolphins and even bigger more iconic predators.

The best stories

I was a very, very reluctant presenter. I’m a cameraman and film-maker, but at some point we realised we were leaving the best stories out in the ocean behind us, as the adventures were just as exciting and sometimes convoluted as the wild animals and habitats we encountered.

Unless David Attenborough would inexplicably decide to spend two years in Lahinch waiting for weather, the job was probably always mine by default. But I managed.

Again and again we found amazing animal feeding behaviour almost constantly at a certain depth of water – about 100 metres. I consulted with a very bright marine biologist friend, Dr Cillian Roden as to why there might be hugely fertile areas, apparently randomly in the deep ocean. The answer was easy, at least for Cillian, an upwelling of nutrient-rich water, something known as an ocean front.

I found little information about this, but fishermen knew where it was and so did the animals.

After two summers and half a winter, we had voyaged up to 40km offshore, meeting several species of whales, dolphins, sharks and birds all feeding on shoals of bait fish, documenting behaviour not seen anywhere in the world. But the shelf edge and blue whales had still eluded us.

The end of our production time loomed and much was unresolved. I went from frustrated, to tormented to demented.

The eternally patient

But fortune favours the brave, or perhaps the eternally patient. September 2017 was the end of the road, a long road at that, but as seems to be the norm for wildlife filming, a last minute chink of wonder appeared.

On August 31 the weather system known as the Azores high moved north over Ireland bringing flat calm seas, and almost without hesitation, we passed the most western Blasket Islands on a voyage that would take us a further 65km west of there and more than 100km from our port in Dingle.

Unsettlingly far to go, but six year’s preparation and two years of voyages had prepared and emboldened us.

The sight of two huge fishing trawlers informed us that we had arrived in the right place, over the first of the real deep water canyons of the Porcupine seabight. Settling to eat after the voyage, we were suddenly welcomed to their deep water world by a massive group of long-finned pilot whales, I still had the first half potato in my mouth as I hastily entered the water. That’s a Paddy for you.

What’s the difference?

A thousand metres above the sea bed, but sure if you can’t stand up, what the difference between two and two thousand metres.

More days followed as we tracked the weather system north in glassy seas, making the shorter trip to the edge of the Rockall Trough 40 miles west of Mayo, the former hunting ground of Irish whalers. Every hour we were on the shelf edge we met rare and wonderful animals, from the mammoth to the micro, none of which I had ever seen in 13 years diving in the shallow seas around Ireland.

We’re not the BBC who often have eight or 10 crews working simultaneously, just myself and an amazing drone cameraman Kevin Smith, who doubles up as just about everything, as we tend to do in a tiny crew.

Two veterans of the Clare big wave scene, Steve Thomas and Seamus Ó’Riain drove us to places where I’m fairly sure no one has been before in a RIB, seamanship and to honest common sense are everything when you go to sea.  And especially to get home safely.

Ireland’s Deep Atlantic sees underwater cameraman Ken O’Sullivan embark on a series of voyages out into the open North Atlantic in search of large whales, sharks and cold water coral reefs 3,000 down on Ireland’s deep sea bed. The two-part series will document many of these creatures’ behaviour for the first time in any TV programme and investigate the health of our deep Atlantic waters. The series will air tonight on RTÉ One.

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Ken O'Sullivan  / Underwater cameraman

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